Album Review: “Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire)” — The Kinks (1969)

The Kinks’s previous album, the exquisite The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society, certainly didn’t deliver on the commercial front, did it? Never mind that it would go on to become the most acclaimed and biggest selling non-compilation album of their careers… Still, that must have smarted a bit for the Ray and the band. Surely, now that their artistic statement, their self-indulgent art project, their bigtime themed album wasn’t an immediate sales success, The Kinks would return to a formula that would tilt them more towards huge commercial success right? RIGHT?!!

Psshaw. The Kinks were just getting warmed up. In early 1969 they was approached by Granada TV to work them and develop a program that would feature songs by the band. They were keen on the project, although by this time Pete Quaife had left the band and was replaced by John Dalton. Still, the band cut Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) over the summer of 1969 and while the TV play/movie never ended up going into production — much to the frustration of Ray Davies — the album dropped that October anyhow. Loosely inspired by the emigration of elder sister Rose and her husband Arthur to Australia, the album retained something of an overall storyline but really felt more thematic then anything else. It echoes the traditions of the past but now in a more restrictive light; “knowing your place” and all that. There’s also the loss of servicemen for King and Country, the resolve of the British character, but all for what really? A house, a car, maybe a TV set or a radio. The loss of children, to bullets, to distance, to a new world of changing social mores. What’s the sum game? Sometimes the love you take is a shitload less than the love you make.

As detailed in the liner notes, Arthur was definitely not named after a Once and Future King, but of the third son of Queen Victoria, who was safe and married and traditional.

Well anyway… all of this is fine and dandy, but how is Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) as an album? I’d say, pretty freakin’ great. REALLY great, another classic album in a long line of classic albums. The album’s production values are the finest to date, the songwriting and arrangements lush and assured, and a sense of driving purpose carried over from VGPS to create another lasting work of artistic vision. The result is one of the band’s finest albums, and yet another top-notch work from a premiere band at the height of their prime.

The songs are eclectic enough, but united by theme. Victoria rocks right outta the gate, catchy as sin but a grounded rocker with layers of overlapping guitars and centralized driving riff. The proud brass lines that accentuate the bridge are a great touch, but first and foremost this is a strong guitar-driven rocker. Switching gears immediately, a military-styled snare opens up Yes Sir, No Sir, a more theatrical number loaded with strong horns, orchestrations, and Ray’s affected, slightly (and purposefully) off-kilter delivery. The song switches gears halfway through, a strict authoratitive response to clamp down on any potential individuality that opens the song. “If he dies we’ll send a medal to his wife…” It segues into the slower, sadder Some Mother’s Son… the song is a really quite heavy-handed, but the descriptive moment of Arthur’s son’s (or brother’s) death, and the image of the mothers waiting for news of their sons at war contrasted against that of mothers waiting for their children to come home from school — pretty hardcore.

Drivin’ is more of a VGPS throwback, indicative of Arthur’s yearning to ignore (or deny) the troubles of world in favor of a simple family drive. It’s a swingin’, backbeat musical hall number that’s catchy as all get out. We get back to the RAWK with Brainwashed, which indicts Arthur’s acquiescence to a servile, know-your-place-and-shut-up mentality. Check out Dalton’s funky bass playing, those strong R&B horns, and Dave’s sweet distorted guitar tone. Great song, totally cooks.

Now we get to the album’s two centerpiece songs: Australia and Shangri-La. One represents a newer world, one free of repressive traditions of Britain, whereas the other represents the comforts of home and quiet virtues of steadfast humility and servitude. But it’s not as if the album decides one is better than the other. There’s certainly a mocking attitude towards the starry-eyed optimism of Australia, which is unique so far in The Kinks output as it ends with a long, lenghty jam by the band. The “jam” element has been both criticized and praised. My reaction is to it is pretty muted but slightly off-center towards the positive side. I dig it, but it’s not exactly mindblowing. But it doesn’t really need to be.

Shangri-La is EPIC. This is one of my favorite Kinks tunes. It starts soft and acoustic, and slowly builds into this total beast. The song pities Arthur’s life and home situation, driving home that he’s stuck in life and can’t really go anywhere with himself. On the other hand, he owns his house (and “most of his car”), but he’s locked in place for life. Which is preferable, the promise of Australia or the certainty of Shangri-La? With an song as amazing as this one, who really cares? This is TOP NOTCH KINKS.

Mr. Churchill Says is probably my least favorite track so far, although it’s far from a weak song. Musically it’s far more interesting than its lyrics. I love Dave’s minor-key solo and band noodling that closes the song out, which definitely elevate the song from meh to decent. She’s Bought A Hate Like Princess Marina is pure theatrical Kinks (and a harbinger of the upcoming RCA era if there ever was one). Good song for what it is, especially as a more caustic riff on the absurdities of life at Shangri-La. When it turns into pure ragtime, you’re either loving it or you’re moving on to the next track. I was loving it personally. I’m a big fan of this kind of swing. So eat it, Harvey.

The album’s first portrayal of real unmasked emotion comes in the ballad Young And Innocent Days, a simple lament for the loss of innocent optimism. I’m particularly a big fan of the vocal harmonies between Ray and Dave on the verses and chorus. It’s a lush, beautiful number. The acoustic licks at the song’s end are quite lovely. Nothing To Say is the emotional flip side to Young and Innocent Days, in which Arthur’s son basically lays it out to his Pop that “we can’t do tomorrow what we did yesterday”. It’s probably the most “pop”-like song on the album: very musical, catchy chorus, solid and steady beat.

Finally we wrap everything up with Arthur, a satisfying ending to a great album. The tone of the song is guitar-driven and rockin’, with an almost uplifting chorus that feels just about as upbeat as you can imagine. Too bad the song just totally DAMNS Arthur as an unsatisfied loser, even though it understands and loves him for it. The world is passing poor Arthur by, and he’s lost to his traditional ways, ones that keep him kept down and trivialized. But at least someone out there loves him for it. Or whatever. It’s a fine song and a great ending to a fantastic album.

It took me a very long time to warm up to Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) as an album. It’s definitely one that didn’t grab me from the get-go, like VGPS or Something Else. Looking back it’s hard to say why, exactly, because I think the album is absolutely killer. If VGPS is still my favorite Kinks album, Arthur is right behind it. At least for now. I’m sounding like a broken record, but this is yet another essential Kinks album and a classic in its own right. The Kinks weren’t just firing on all cylinders at this point; they were the entire melon!! Not quite sure what that means…

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